New Jersey allows in-person summer school but virtual classes still an option

Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that in-person summer school is permitted beginning July 6, though districts may offer online classes if they prefer. (Pool photo by Rich Hundley III/The Trentonian)

New Jersey will allow students to attend summer school in person next month, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday, marking the first time children have been permitted in classrooms since the state ordered school buildings closed in March.

While in-person summer classes may begin July 6, Murphy said districts can keep classes online if they choose or offer a mix of in-person and virtual learning.

With summer school just a few weeks away, it’s unclear how many districts will opt for in-person programs that will require extensive safety measures in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections. And while parents who have to work outside the home may welcome the opportunity to send their children back to school, other families may balk at putting their children in classrooms while the pandemic is ongoing. 

“This guidance will allow districts to provide robust programs in a safe environment, while preparing students for the school year ahead of us,” Murphy said Friday, adding that in-person special education programs are also permitted.

“To be clear,” he added, “it is left to districts to decide the best way to meet their students’ educational needs in a safe environment, whether that be in person, remote, or some form of hybrid.”

In Newark, the district has said it will offer mandatory academic classes for struggling students this summer along with optional enrichment programs. But it was awaiting state guidance before deciding whether any of those classes will happen in person. On Saturday, a spokeswoman said the district is currently planning to offer only virtual programs.

If districts decide to bring any students into classrooms this summer, they must follow the same safety guidelines that the state issued for summer camps earlier this week. The guidelines state that staffers and students must be screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms and wear face coverings whenever coming within six feet of other people. The rules also prohibit contact sports and field trips, and they recommend staggering meal breaks and students’ arrival and dismissal times in order to avoid large groups.

Districts face a difficult decision. On the one hand, reopening classrooms on such short notice could pose major logistical challenges as schools scramble to secure masks and hand sanitizer, and to devise protocols to keep people safely distanced. 

On the other hand, if schools do not offer in-person summer school, students will return in September having spent nearly six months out of classrooms. While districts such as Newark have provided online activities and video lessons during that time, it is expected that some students inevitably fell behind without the close daily supervision of their teachers. Those concerns are especially acute for students with special needs.

“We’ve heard from countless parents and educators about the importance of summer learning and [extended school year], especially now that so many students and families have faced unexpected obstacles with remote learning over the past three months,” state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said in a statement. “We believe schools can provide the necessary summer instruction while ensuring the safety of students and teachers, and their families.”

Murphy has been steadily relaxing New Jersey’s emergency restrictions as the rate of new coronavirus infections declines. Beaches, boardwalks, and state parks have reopened, and nonessential retail stores and outdoor dining can resume business Monday with some restrictions. Pools and personal care businesses, such as barbershops and nail salons, can welcome back patrons beginning June 22.

The Newark school system has planned a full range of summer programs from July 6 to August 7, but has left open the possibility that they could take place virtually or in-person.

Students who struggled academically this school year are required to attend summer school, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. daily for elementary school students and 7:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. for high schoolers. The district will offer separate programs for students with disabilities and those still learning English. 

The district will supply “Learning at Home Summer Kits” to students, and it is recruiting high school students to provide online math tutoring to students in grades three to six, according to the district’s remote learning plan. 

In addition, virtual enrichment programs are free and open to all elementary and middle school students. They will include coding, chess, and dance classes led by instructors from the famous Alvin Ailey dance company, Superintendent Roger León said this month.

“You want to catch up, speed up, move ahead: July 6 is when the summer programs start,” he said.

The Newark Teachers Union is urging the district to consider opening at least two schools — one elementary and one high school — for in-person classes this summer. John Abeigon, the union president who is a member of León’s school-reopening task force, said doing so would let schools rehearse the safety measures they will have to enact this fall, including face coverings, temperature checks, and smaller class sizes.

“Why should Newark screw up reopening the schools in September because we didn’t think of something?” he said, calling limited in-person summer programs “a perfect opportunity” to see what schools will look like this fall.

The district is reviewing the proposal to run one or two summer programs in person, but as of “right now, all programs are virtual,” said spokeswoman Nancy Deering.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that schools can provide in-person special education services this summer, but all other classes must remain virtual. Meanwhile, New York City’s schools chief has raised concerns about sending medically vulnerable students back to classrooms amid the pandemic.

This story has been updated to include a response from Newark Public Schools.

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